Cheap Houses, High Rents

Cheap Houses, High Rents

Throughout the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how the market for low-income renters is stacked against them in many ways that are unfair and often exploitative. Without a strong system to ensure that everyone who needs housing is able to access basic and reasonable housing, the bottom of the market for renters becomes a scramble for a small number of dilapidated and overpriced units. Low-income renters cannot walk away from properties that they find unacceptable, because the alternative is reliance on overcrowded and stressed homeless shelters. In the end, this allows landlords to disinvest in their rental properties while maintaining high rental rates.
Desmond writes, “the same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods – depressed property values – made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not.”
Unfortunately, our nation’s history of redlining and lingering structural racism has created dense minority ghettos in our country. Black people are limited in where they can look for housing, with landlords in white and middle-class parts of cities tacitly refusing to rent to minorities. Desmond shares a story of two black roommates who were showed a rental unit, only to have the landlords suddenly receive a phone call from a tenant accepting a rental agreement, removing the property from the market. In the only instance of the book where Desmond deliberately interfered with the subjects he was studying, he contacted the landlord after he told the black roommates the property was no longer available posing potential renter and was told the property was available [Author note: Desmond is a white male]. Black people are still to this day stuck in areas where local governments and businesses have disinvested, depressing the property values.
As Desmond shows, this creates a situation where landlords can purchase properties cheaply and rent to residents who can’t find housing outside of these disinvested areas. Since black and brown people can’t go elsewhere to find housing, where the rent is equivalent but the properties are nicer, they have to accept high rents for dilapidated units. Poor minority renters are taken advantage of by landlords who purchase cheap houses and charge high rents. This system reinforces structural racism and inequality for the lowest income minority renters in our nation.
How Men & Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

How Men and Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

The poorest people in our country are often in danger of being taken advantage of or exploited. For low income renters, their need for shelter and limited housing options means that they have to negotiate deals to avoid eviction or try to work out better arrangements with more powerful landlords. In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how these negotiations differ for men and women and how these arrangements can be particularly exploitative and dangerous for women.
 
 
“Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women – already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations – could not spare the time. … When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.”
 
 
Gender disparities in our nation translate into different experiences of exploitation and danger for men and women in our lowest socioeconomic ranks. Low skill and low wage men are expected to work and produce, and this expectation affords them extra opportunities to find ways to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Landlords, Desmond explains, are more willing to offer men the chance to work off late rent by providing them some form of manual labor that will help benefit the landlord and their tenants or properties. Rarely do women receive the same offers, and Desmond explains that women rarely seek out similar arrangement themselves. Various gendered norms and expectations end up making it harder for women to skate by with odd jobs at the lowest levels than men who are given extra chances, even if those extra chances are physically demanding and potentially dangerous.
 
 
Desmond’s quote also hints at another gendered norm that makes life in the lowest socioeconomic status harder for women than men. Women are expected to take care of children, if they have any, and this means they have less time and flexibility in picking up extra work for their landlord in exchange for rent. Welfare often requires that an individual spend a certain amount of time in school, searching for a job or working, or engaging with certain productive volunteer activities. Women who try to adhere to these requirements, all while caring for kids or men who did not try to meet such requirements, could not possibly take on more gig work to make a little extra cash to avoid eviction.
 
 
Finally, Desmond’s quote highlights the exploitative and dangerous reality that many low socioeconomic status women find themselves in. The gendered disparities and power disparities between these women and their landlords often means they have nothing to negotiate with for rent other than their bodies. Trading sex for rent is dangerous for the women, exploitative, and in many ways degrading. It is not the case that every individual facing eviction experiences these realities exactly as I have described them based on gender, but it is often the case that the threat of eviction manifests differently for men and women, in part due to larger gender biases that exist within our society.

Skipping Eviction Court

Skipping Eviction Court

“Roughly 70 percent of tenants summoned to Milwaukee’s eviction court didn’t come. The same was true in other major cities. In some urban courts, only 1 tenant in 10 showed,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. An inherent power dynamic exists between the poorest renters in our nation and the landlords who rent to them. There are more poor people who are desperate for even the worst quality housing than there are low-rent units available for rent. This means that poor individuals are at the mercy of landlords as they compete for the worst of the worst housing units. As Desmond’s quote above demonstrates, eviction courts end up being another avenue through which landlords exercise unequal power over tenants.
Desmond continues, “Some tenants couldn’t miss work or couldn’t find child care or were confused by the whole process or couldn’t care less or would rather avoid the humiliation.” For a variety of factors, eviction court is harder to attend for those getting evicted than for those doing the evicting. Landlords who don’t work a typical 9 to 5 have more time and flexibility to attend court hearings than low-income renters who work strict schedules. Landlords have more ability to learn the eviction court process, familiarizing themselves with the right procedures and arguments to win cases if a tenant were to show up. Eviction court often doesn’t end up serving as an aid or a protection to low-income tenants who hit an unlucky spell or who had to face unreasonable living conditions due to landlord neglect. Instead, it reinforces the power dynamics that exist between landlords and low-income renters.
I understand that being a landlord to low-income renters is not easy. I recognize that landlords are property owners and need to make money on their rental investments. I can understand how frustrating it would be to have tenant after tenant fail to pay their rent, continuously providing excuses for why they need a break, and to deal with damage to rental properties that barely provide a profit. However, the power dynamics backed by legal structures like eviction court often set poor renters back and prevent them from ever finding stable footing. If the rental market is so terrible for landlords and creates such deep problems for  renters, then is it worthwhile to find a different mechanism, other than markets, to ensure low-income individuals have stable housing?
Clearly dense housing projects are not the answer, but something outside of slumlord arrangements needs to be done. Lacking stable housing makes it harder for the poor to work, harder to raise their children without their kids facing adverse childhood experiences which make their life outcomes worse, and harder for them to be functioning members of society. Skipping eviction court, Desmond argues, is a symptom of the broken down system for low-income market provided housing. One way or another, we have to innovate to help our poorest find some stability from which they can begin to live better lives without the humiliation and threat of constant eviction.
Housing or Dignity

Housing or Dignity

For most Americans who rent a home or apartment, if something important breaks, like a pipe or part of the HVAC system, they can expect the landlord to respond and fix the problem in a reasonable time. However, our nation’s poorest individuals cannot always expect to have repairs to the housing they rent made in a reasonable and timely manner. Rents are expensive, and for many Americans work is hard to find and payments for housing falls behind. When this happens, exploitation is possible and many low-income renters end up trading their dignity for their housing.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond follows a landlord named Sherrena through the general course of her day managing several rental units for low-income individuals. In the book, several of Sherrena’s tenants fall behind on their rent and need help getting by. This creates a situation where Sherrena is able to skirt the rules on maintenance and upkeep for her rental properties. Desmond writes, “as Sherrena put it to tenants: if I give you a break, you give me a break.” The implication is clear, if you are a difficult tenant due to noise complaints, damage to the property, or late rent, don’t expect the landlord to stick to the letter of the law in terms of fixing and repairing the rental property. Its not so much giving Sherrena a break in terms of being slow to address concerns but rather an acknowledgement that Sherrena giving a tenant a break is an exercise of power which allows her to then avoid legal requirements related to general property upkeep.
There is a transactional sense where this seems logical. If a tenant is going to be late on payments or difficult in one way or another, then they should expect that the landlord is going to be less cooperative in return. This is a classic tit for tat type of transactional relationship where one person responds in kind to the provocations of the other. But as Desmond describes, and Sherrena’s quote demonstrates, this creates exploitative relationships between landlords and poor renters.
“Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.” Housing prices across the nation have increased at a time when wages have stagnated for many people. Prior to 2020, unemployment reached record lows, but still, many people had left the job market and couldn’t find adequate work to support them with a living wage. For these individuals, being able to afford rent month after month is a major challenge.
Falling behind on rent may mean that a landlord will ignore problems with the rental property. This could mean they don’t call an exterminator if bugs are found in the building, that they don’t fix a broken window, or that they don’t hire a plumber to repair a clogged toilet. Renters who are behind on rent or have rocky relationships with the landlord have to put up with unsanitary or dangerous living conditions until they can get current on rent or catch up on any back payments. Being poor means they trade in their dignity and health in order to not get kicked out of their rental. We can argue that this is simply market dynamics and rational behavior on the part of landlords, but we should acknowledge that there is a dignity trade off taking place and that low-income renters can be exploited by more powerful landlords. This is a real issue that we should care about, no matter how lazy, how undeserving, or how bad we find the choices an individual has made to end up in their current situation. Trading dignity for housing should simply be untenable.
The History of Redlining

The History of Redlining

I often find myself thinking about the history of racism in America and asking how that history could still be impacting the lives of Americans today. While it feels like we have made huge steps in addressing racism and in expanding economic and social opportunities for black and minority people in our country, we still have a long way to go, and the effects of our history of racism still plays a role in the world around us.
Homeownership is a great example of the way that historic racism still impacts the racial inequality that we see around us today. Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted does an excellent job showing how racist and segregationist policies influenced the homeownership and economic development of black people in the United States. He writes, “in the 1920s and ’30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other norther cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there – and this was especially true of the black poor – simply because they were allowed to be.”
For many Americans, a house is the most expensive thing they own and is their primary vehicle for wealth creation. Being able to purchase a home can set an individual up for a retirement, an inheritance to pass on to children and grandchildren, and can provide numerous other financial and social benefits for the individual and their family. The practice of redlining was a deliberate act of denying housing to black and minority individuals. Both homeownership and renting was limited, as Desmond’s quote shows, to certain neighborhoods and areas within cities for black people. They could not purchase homes in suburban areas, because banks would not lend to them for purchasing a home outside a redlined area. Real estate agents would not show black people homes in white neighborhoods. Landlords in white neighborhoods wouldn’t rent to black people.
From this segregation came the crowding of black and minority populations into city centers that were ignored and underdeveloped. Housing was limited in these areas, driving the price up for those who could not buy or rent in a cheaper white area due to racism. Black people could not build wealth, even if they became successful business people. They were stuck around low socio-economic status people, meaning their children could not connect with more wealthy individuals and network for future opportunities.
For decades after the Civil War, black people were intentionally denied access to the kinds of assets that allowed many American’s to get started on a path toward wealth generation for themselves and their families for generations to come. Not only were black people not able to purchase homes in good neighborhoods that would appreciate in value, they were denied affordable rent in white neighborhoods, paying more for worse quality housing in redlined areas. They were denied the opportunity to begin building wealth and to pass an inheritance along to their children while paying more for worse housing. When we see the wealth gap that exists between black and white people today, we can look back and see that redlining played a direct role in the creation and maintenance of that gap. Racial disparities that exist today often have deep roots that we cannot see if we don’t look closely to understand how the policies impacted the lives of those who could not build wealth and set their families up for future success.
The Incentives Around Low-Market Housing

The Incentives Around Low-Market Housing

Low income renters face a lot of challenges in terms of maintaining stable housing. For those with low incomes, affordable rental units are hard to find, and the competition for such units means that any error or slip-up on the part of the renter could land them on the streets with no where else to go.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “the high demand for the cheapest housing told landlords that for every family in a unit there were scores behind them ready to take their place. In such an environment, the incentive to lower the rent, forgive a late payment, or spruce up your property was extremely low.” A lack of affordable housing and high competition among low income renters means the incentives for landlords are not in favor of the renters. Landlords know they can boot out a tenant who has young children that cause problems, or a tenant who misses a couple of rent payments, or a tenant who complains too much about problems with the property and quickly find a replacement. There are no incentives to have a nicer property to attract new tenants. There is no incentive to work with a tenant who was just laid off or had unexpected medical bills to repay late rent.
This puts low income renters in dangerous places. They cannot pass up low rent opportunities at units that are in bad condition, because if they pass, someone else will take it and they will be without a place to live. Low income renters cannot afford to have a child break a window, because they may be more likely to be kicked out of the unit than to have the window repaired timely. Additionally, they are unlikely to get a break if they hit an unlucky spell with work or health that prevents them from making rent. In many ways, the incentives around low-income housing lead to unhealthy and exploitative relationships between the poor and their landlords. Throughout Evicted Desmond explores these relationships and the real psychological costs that this reality creates for low income renters.
Ownership of Land

Ownership of Land

“The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. This line feels like it could be from a book written about the Trail of Tears, about any number of American atrocities toward indigenous populations of the Americas, or about European colonialization. But the line is about modern evictions from rental properties across the Untied States.
I don’t think the idea of connecting modern evictions with our nation’s history of forcing Native Americans from their land was intentional in Desmond’s book, but I think it is an interesting and insightful angle through which we can view evictions and the American housing crisis. People need reasonable and safe places to live. Research has demonstrated how important the places where you live and grow up can be for your life outcomes. Our troubling history of taking land from Native Americans shows that we have always known this and it reinforces the lessons that current research is presenting. Additionally, the abandonment of native populations and the economic challenges that tribes across the country face today show how long lasting dislocation from property and housing can be.
American public housing projects have often not gone well. Providing housing via market mechanisms is generally much preferred to government provided housing, but for those on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, this option often become exploitative, exclusionary, unhealthy, and dangerous. Poor people often have to live in slums that can do more to set them back than help them find a way to get ahead. And when they can’t get ahead, they face eviction, with the powerful landowners forcing them from the lousy housing they were at one point able to attain.
The power dynamics of renters and owners is important to acknowledge. Landlords can evict tenants, and low income tenants quickly realize that a landlord can make their life difficult if they speak out about the slum conditions they live in. The people living on the land have to deal with terrible conditions, and risk being forced from the land if they speak up. Just as Native Americans had to accept the terms of the powerful American Government, tenants have to accept the terms of land-owners, no matter how unreasonable they may be.
I recognize that land owners have rights. I also recognize how terrible renters can be and how terrible they may treat the property of the land owner (I currently live in a house that was once a rental and we are still dealing with the costs of careless renters and neglect). However, my efforts to connect Desmond’s writing with the way Native American’s were treated is a deliberate attempt to show that a power imbalance can be more harmful for renters than landlords. I don’t have a great solution, but I think it is important that we recognize the opportunities for exploitation that arise for our nation’s lowest SES members in a market system of providing low-income housing. It is also important that we recognize the great harms that exercising power and forcing people from land can have, as demonstrated through the darkest moments of our nation’s past. We should do all we can to avoid leaving another bitter legacy of power and eviction in our wake.
Disconnection Notices

Disconnection Notices

In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes, “in a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” Life in the United States can be brutal for the poor. We operate under an economic system that helps push the middle class to work hard, strive for more, and be the driving force of our economic engine. Some individuals from the middle class do advance, some do fall, and some poor people do rise up to achieve the middle class American dream. However, this system that focuses so heavily on a productive middle class doesn’t always match the realities faced by our nation’s poor.
It is true that all of us have to make tough choices every day. We have to choose to show up to work, we have to choose to actually work rather than socialize and play games once we get there, and we have to make responsible decisions to use our money to pay our bills rather than buy air Jordan’s and sushi every night. However, what Desmond and other authors who have written about poverty and homelessness in America show, for many of the poorest among us, even making those smart decisions won’t help alleviate their poverty. Desmond argues that one reason why so many people fail to pay utility bills and receive disconnection notices is that many people are paying as much as 50% of their income on rent and as much as 70% of their income on rent plus utilities.
For people in poverty who face high rents and utilities, they may have only 30% of a minimum wage income to spend on the necessities. That’s a tiny amount of their income to use toward transportation to school, work, or childcare. A fraction of their income is available to put food on the table. A sliver of the 30% can be used for clothes, perhaps a religious tithe, cleaning supplies, and basic household goods to replace worn and broken items.
Two things happen to poor people living in these situations. First, one instance of bad luck can upend years of hard work and good decision-making. A child who breaks something, a roommate who steals something, an unexpected healthcare cost, or a product that goes bad prematurely can be a substantial cost that breaks the bank and throws the perfect balance of that remaining 30% of income out of whack. For many individuals working at the lowest wage jobs, one slip-up can mean losing a job, making it harder to get a job and climb toward a higher wage, and compounding the financial difficulties that an individual may face.
The second thing that happens is that the individual recognizes how little it matters if they save a lot or don’t save at all. If one spell of bad luck can ruin your plans for using your money wisely, then why try hard to keep things in balance? Everyone forgets a bill sometime, or overspends impulsively, or faces an unexpected cost that sets them back, but for rich and middle class people, its no problem. For lower class people, it is a major problem that they are blamed for and often punished for. If this is the reality of your life, then there are actually incentives to simply spend money in a seemingly irrational manner and to enjoy what you can of the 30% remaining after rent and utilities. If you are going to have to live with the consequences of not having enough money, then why not enjoy what you can until your water and power are shut off. When you live in a constant state of stress where your entire pay check is gone toward bills and necessities, no matter how much you try to cut down, then you don’t really have an incentive to make smart decisions and continue to strive for better financial stability. Blowing your money on QVC items or a steak (something middle and upper class people also do) doesn’t seem like a bad idea, after all, you may have your power shut off regardless of how wisely you spend.
A Double Housing Squeeze

A Double Housing Squeeze

A big focus on unaffordable housing is on the price of homes and the cost of rent. However, wage stagnation is another important factor that contributes to unaffordable housing. In $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write, “rising rents are certainly a big part of the problem, but the concurrent fall in renters’ incomes has outstripped the rise in prices by a factor of more than two to one.” There is a double housing squeeze being felt across the nation as the price of housing increases while wages either stagnate or decrease, especially when considered relative to general inflation indexes.
Rising home costs are often attributed to zoning regulations the prevent building sufficient housing to meet the needs of a city or population. Zoning laws restrict the building of duplexes and apartment complexes. Some zoning laws require ample parking space, cutting down on potential living space. And some zoning prevents infilling with more high density housing that would allow more people to move to the area. The results are limited housing options and higher prices for sought after units.
As wages stagnate, this becomes a serious problem. People search for sectors with higher wages and more opportunities for advancement. Such opportunities are often found in cities, however that is where the highest competition for housing exists. So individuals seeking higher wages have to contend with higher housing prices. The alternative is often accepting a stagnant wage and living further away from work than one would like, because that is the only place affordable housing can be found.
This double squeeze creates a lose-lose situation for low income individuals. If they  move to a city they may find better work opportunities, but they will pay more for less space. But if they don’t move, they will either face a very long commute or a job closer to their home that pays less and has no opportunities for advancement. Housing is a major issue, and unaffordable housing has a whole cascading series of negative consequences.
Rent

Rent

When I was in high school I took a class my senior year that followed the secular personal financial management course from Dave Ramsey. Ramsey provides many practical lessons about money management and financial well-being. One area that he focuses on is how much of your income you should spend on different areas, such as on housing, groceries, and other necessities. Ramsey follows the standard recommendation that you don’t spend more than 30% of your income on housing, a great goal, but one that really isn’t a possibility for many Americans.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer examine the high cost of rent and how it impacts the lives of those living in poverty in their book $2.00 A Day, originally published in 2015. “Between 1990 and 2013, rents rose faster than inflation in virtually every region of the country,” the authors write. This has serious impacts for the lives of those living in poverty. One impact discussed by the authors, that I had not considered, was child custody. In some cities and states there are limitations on how many children can share a single room. At a certain point, too many children, especially of mixed gender, are not allowed to share a room and doing so could constitute neglect and lead to parents losing custody of their children.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “between 200 and 2012 alone, rents rose by 6 percent. During that same period, the real income of the middling renter in the United States fell by 13 percent.” While wages had stagnated and real incomes had fallen for lower class workers, rents across the country were rising. The increase in rent was particularly high in large cities where most of the economic output and job creation in the country has taken place. Renters faced a choice, live where rents are cheap, but where there are no jobs, or live where rents are high, and where jobs can be found. Living in a cheap place may mean an unreasonably long and expensive commute, but living where the jobs are might mean sharing a place with non-familial renters and crowding into living conditions that put renters at risk.
I haven’t studied affordable housing, and I don’t know the solution to rising rents for low income individuals and families. But I think it is important to know the statistics shared by Edin and Shaefer. I live in a city where rents and home prices have skyrocketed (Reno, NV). One consequence of the rising rents is an increase in homelessness, particularly in short term homelessness. We all see people on the streets and notice when there are more people on the street, but we don’t always notice the short term homeless. The chronic homeless overshadow what is sometimes a larger, yet less visible form of homelessness. Understanding the rise in rents, the stagnation of income (which we might hopefully be getting out of as we recover from COVID) and the impact on short-term homelessness helps us think more clearly and accurately about the challenges that renters face, and about ways to help those who are unable to keep up with rising rents. It is important that we think about the obvious consequences of increased rents, like homelessness, and also the less obvious consequences, such as families potentially losing custody of their children. As rents have risen, Dave Ramsey’s advice to keep your housing costs below 30% of your income just isn’t possible for many Americans, and the consequences have been dire for many individuals and communities.